Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Is Religious Freedom Just About Worship?

Today, January 16, is Religious Freedom Day, and has been proclaimed as such by the President of the United States since 1996. Barack Obama is no exception, and has dutifully issued a proclamation to that effect today. That statement says, in part:
Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose. 
That is the entirety of the definition of “religious freedom” within the proclamation, and that, I think, is a problem (and it is not a problem specific to Obama; both Clinton and Bush made similarly limited pronouncements in the past). Because religious freedom is about more than “just” worship. At its most basic, religion is about beliefs and practices, not merely that small subset of actions that falls under the rubric of “worship”. Indeed, the First Amendment is much broader in its protections:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; 
Certainly, most definitions of religious freedom would include within it the freedom to worship (although there are some religions that do not, in fact, actually “worship” anything). But religion is, in most cases, a phenomenon that reaches far beyond the act of worship. Often religion is an organic whole, difficult if not impossible to separate from everyday life, and something which informs many if not most of our decisions in life.

Although we may not agree with or support those decisions and choices, making them and enacting them is a legitimate expression of one’s religion, and thus should fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Religion places upon us moral obligations and informs our behavior towards our fellow human beings, as well as presenting a framework for our relationship with the Gods (or God, or the Divine, etc., depending on the specific religion involved).

These religious impositions on our behavior, from the Wiccan Rede to the Three Wynns of Théodish Belief, the Roman Virtues of the Religio Romana to the Nine Noble Virtues of Ásatrú, from the Ten Commandments to the Great Commission, from opposition to abortion to equal treatment of women; all of these things and many more, written and unwritten, form the basis of belief and behavior that religion impresses upon us.

The freedom to do and believe and say all those things are enshrined in the First Amendment, and as Roman Catholics, or Baptists, or Blue Star Wiccans, or Ásatrúar, or Théodsmen, or Celtic Reconstructionists, or British Traditional Witches, or Muslims, or Shintoists, or whatever, we should never forget that our rights to exercise our religion freely and without interference from the government extends well beyond the “mere” freedom to worship. It must and does include the freedom to live a life informed by religion as well.

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